Muslim Women and Freedom of Choice: Syrian Television vs. Cinema

Muslim Women and Freedom of Choice: Syrian Television vs. Cinema December 19, 2011

“Can a Syrian woman run for the post of the President of Syria? Yes she can.”

This interrogative statement and answer captured my attention as I was watching The Light in Her Eyes, a film that premiered at the 8th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival this December. The film, which documents the story of Houda Al-Habash, a Syrian female teacher of Islamic subjects at a girls’ school, made me ask a lot of questions, the most important of which was: why do not we see such Muslim women on our television screens inside our homes very often?

Students Hiba, Alaa', and Riham, from The Light in Her Eyes.

In a previous post on Muslimah Media Watch, Diana reviewed the film, which tries to show the natural setting where Syrian Muslim girls are living. During the film, you see girls reciting Quran, and watching soap operas as well. You see women wearing hijab, and putting on makeup. You even experience an initiation ceremony of 12- and 13-year-old girls into wearing hijab, something that might remind us of wedding celebrations or baptism ceremonies.

The film, which is directed by Julie Meltzer  and Laura Nix, does not only show female religious figures, but also presents characters of men who serve as supporters, like husbands, brothers, and sons. On the other hand, the film reminds us as viewers that this is not a totally rosy world we are living in. The film also shows extremely strict religious men who order women not to leave their houses, and focus only on serving their husbands and children. One of the clerics even wonders whether women who hold bachelors, masters or doctorates are able to raise their children in the right “Islamic” way.

For me, the film is reminiscent of a Syrian soap opera that was shown during the holy month of Ramadan two years ago. Titled “Ma Malakat Aymanokom [what your right hands possess],” the television drama tells the story of three different girls attending English language classes together, and living totally different lives.

One of the girls is the daughter of a very religious man, who teaches Islam and its rules to Muslim youth. The girl and her mother attend religion lessons with a female cleric, who is shown to be very strict and extreme in the soap opera.

She tells the girls attending her class that everything is forbidden – even thinking about their male neighbor is a taboo – and that they must dedicate all their time to prayers and to reading Quran. She also stresses on the fact that God created human beings to pray to Him, and that He created women to serve males on earth.

Houda Al-Habash, Director of Al-Zahra Mosque School, from The Light in Her Eyes.

Going through this soap opera, I tried to recall television productions that presented religious women in a “positive” way, meaning that they are normal human beings who do not put religion as an obstacle to live their lives normally; rather, they fit religion in with their normal daily routine which involves watching television, listening to music, studying, and going out with girlfriends.

Syrian soap operas, which I respect as the best in portraying real life in a persuasive manner, also show religious women as oppressed and controlled by their male counterparts, whether fathers, husbands, or brothers. On screen, such women don’t have the authority to speak out and say no. In the soap opera Ma Malakat Aymanokom, Leila is beaten by her brother because he believes she is having a relationship with a man. He is not sure whether that is true, or whether that man exists in the first place. All is he trying to do is to play the role of patriarch in his sister’s life, because his fundamentalist background conditioned him to be skeptical about anything related to women.

Television soap operas are becoming an integral part of our daily living experience. Many of them suggest to us as viewers that religious women are being oppressed and will stay this way unless they adhere to fundamentalist religious codes of behavior. Unfortunately, many of us as women are willing to believe in the righteousness of this ideology.  Hence, many of us seem to be haunted by a terrible sense of fear that would surely stifle women creativity and innovation. On the other hand, it is heartening to see films like The Light in Her Eyes taking the opposite direction of socialization by showing women as strong enough to make the right choices in their life.  Given the incredible effect visual media have on our knowledge and attitudes towards feminism, I believe more there needs to be more alignment between filmmakers and television drama producers in addressing issues relating to women.


Editor’s note: Comment moderation may be slower this week, as I am traveling.  I apologise in advance if your comment takes some time to appear. – Krista

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